The Missouri Supreme Court announced Monday it was placing a state judge in charge of cases in Ferguson, Mo., a decision that came after the Justice Department lambasted the city’s municipal court system as harmful and aimed only at boosting revenue.
Meanwhile, the city’s municipal judge, Ronald J. Brockmeyer, who was criticized in the Justice Department’s report for creating court fees that were described as “abusive and may be unlawful,” said in a statement that he had resigned his post.
Judge Roy L. Richter of the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals will be moved to the St. Louis County circuit court and he will be assigned all of Ferguson’s pending and future municipal cases, the state Supreme Court said.
The transfer order, signed by Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell and approved by the full court, goes into effect on Monday and will remain until the court issues another order. It grants Richter, a St. Louis native, the ability to change the court’s policies and procedures and to “restore the integrity of the system.”
“Judge Richter will bring a fresh, disinterested perspective to this court’s practices and he is able and willing to implement needed reforms,” Russell said in a statement Monday.
To help Richter with this process, the state Supreme Court was also moving staff members from the state court administrator’s office to help review Ferguson’s court practices. The Justice Department made multiple recommendations for reforming the court system there, even as investigators noted that they found many people who had encountered problems with heavy fines from multiple courts in the region.
“Extraordinary action is warranted in Ferguson, but the Court also is examining reforms that are needed on a statewide basis,” Russell said.
The Justice Department’s 102-page report, released last week, devoted significant space to racial disparities in policing and law enforcement following the shooting death of a black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. It also had harsh words for the Ferguson municipal court system, which it said acted “not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue.”
Investigators with the Justice Department determined that the court’s actions cause unnecessarily lengthy cases, increase the odds someone will violate the court’s requirements and then slap them with additional fines and arrest warrants. Ultimately, a single traffic stop could give way to fines “that a person living in poverty is unable to immediately pay,” the report stated.
Brockmeyer, the municipal judge, is singled out in the report for his efforts to increase revenue collection. The Justice Department report states that Brockmeyer has taken credit for creating additional fees. The report also notes that an unnamed Ferguson City Council member argued against reappointing Brockmeyer, saying that switching to another judge would mean that cases would be “handled properly and fairly.”
According to his law firm’s Web site, Brockmeyer served as municipal judge for the cities of Ferguson and Breckenridge Hills and was also the municipal prosecutor for three other cities, Florissant, Vinita Park and Dellwood.
Brockmeyer announced his resignation in a statement issued by his law firm and posted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The statement said Brockmeyer “recognizes that the Department of Justice report, as well as recent media reports, regardless of their accuracy or validity, have diminished the public’s confidence” in the Ferguson court.
The statement called Brockmeyer a fair and impartial judge and said he cannot speak until the city and the Justice Department potentially negotiate a settlement. It noted that his work in Ferguson is part-time, stating that he only appeared in the court once a week, and pointed to the court clerk as a full-time employee. (Ferguson’s court clerk was fired last week due to the racist e-mails found by federal investigators.)
“Courts are a vital part of our democracy, and our court system is built on the trust of the citizens it serves,” Gov. Jay Nixon (D) said in a statement Monday night. “Today’s strong and appropriate actions by the Missouri Supreme Court are a solid step forward.”
Russell also said that the state Supreme Court would continue to consider changing the rule that governs municipal courts in the states. In announcing the transfer Monday, she pointed to the impact these municipal courts can have on citizens.
“More than two-thirds of all Missouri court cases are filed in the municipal divisions,” Russell said. “Though these are not courts of record, they are the first – and sometimes the only – impression Missourians have of their court system. Although we recognize the local control our statutes give these uniquely local entities, we must not sacrifice individual rights and society’s collective commitment to justice.”